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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Toldot - Pride in the Face of the Wicked

In Parashat Toldot, the Genesis narrative shifts from the second to the third generation of our forefathers. The portion opens with Rebecca's fraught pregnancy. Two nations struggle within her - foreshadowing the torrid relationship between the twins, Esau and Jacob, in their early lives. Over the next years Rebecca, Isaac and their boys travel throughout the land of Israel. At times finding safe haven, only to have that safe haven taken from them from the very people who invited them in - foreshadowing the torrid relationship of Am Yisrael with peoples of all nations in which they will find a, seemingly, safe home. 

Years pass, and the time comes for Isaac to bestow upon his eldest son his blessing, the inheritance of the family line. The Torah tells us that he knows it is time because “Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see” (Genesis 21:1). While to the modern eye, this is a seemingly banal line of description that belies Isaac’s old age, to the rabbis of antiquity this verse was a source of deep fascination. In Bereshit Rabbah - a 4th and 5th century compilation of rabbinical homiletics on Genesis including teachings from the Land of Israel and Babylon - there are no less than seven different interpretations of this verse. To put this in context, most verses have one interpretation, three is a large amount, and seven is unusual. 

One of these seven interpretations is attributed to Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya who lived and taught in the Land of Israel in the first century CE. Ben Azarya explains that when the Torah says that Isaac’s eyes were dimmed it was to prevent him from seeing evil, particularly the evil of the “wicked one”. The wicked one in this context is understood to be his son, Esau, to whom the rabbis are most cruel in their commentary, but that is a topic for a separate drasha. Ben Azarya explains that Adonai does a kindness to Isaac by weakening his sight: “The Holy One blessed be He said: ‘Isaac will walk out to the marketplace and the people will say: This is the father of that wicked one. Instead, I will dim his eyes and he will remain inside his house.’* 

According to ben Azarya, rather than being exposed to the humiliation and sadness of the cruel words of his peers it was a blessing that Isaac was confined to his home. He justifies this teaching with a verse from Mishlei - Proverbs - that states “With the rise of the wicked, a person should hide” (Proverbs 28:28).

How fitting that this commentary brings this particular piece of wisdom when we consider all that we have seen over the past weeks. We have seen so many wicked people these past weeks chanting slogans calling for violence of Jews, tearing down posters of children held hostage in Gaza, defacing Jewish institutions, forcing Jewish students to hide on campus and needing to be escorted to safety by security. We have seen the owner of X and one of the most recognizable people of the planet promote the Great Replacement Theory, blaming Jews for anti-white racism and the advancement of immigration to usurp the existing order in the United States, to his tens of millions of followers. There has been so much wickedness that, at times, it seems that people, that humanity, have gone into hiding. Deafening silences have been heard from so many that we hoped would come to our aid. I find myself so often echoing the cry of the psalmist in these past weeks me’ayin yavo ezri - where will my help come from? 

Far be it from me to question the eternal wisdom of the Torah, but I hope you will allow it in relation to the wisdom of Proverbs in this case. Is the answer in the face of the wicked really that people should go into hiding? In the face of all we have seen, all the hatred that has been exposed, can the Torah really be charging us with at best self-preservation and, at worst, indifference? 

Indeed, indifference and wickedness are allies. As Elie Wiesel wrote in an article in 1986, “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” The indifference, the silence of our friends alongside our silence, our indifference will only allow these wicked, threatening voices to multiply and gain strength. 

If anything, the last weeks have shown us that Jews cannot, must not, hide. We cannot, must not remain silent. Alongside the rise of threats and hatred, there has been so much beautiful Jewish pride displayed in every corner of the world in which we live. A shining example of refusing to hide, refusing to stay silent took place this week in Washington D.C. Located symbolically between two modern monuments to democracy, the United States Congress and the White House, nearly 300,000 Jews and non-Jewish allies gathered in support of Israel, return the captives, and against the growing storm of Jew-hatred gathering all over the world. Thousands upon thousands of people gathered peacefully, without incident of violence or vandalism, to show all those who march with faces shrouded, hatred on their lips, and calls of violent actions against Jews that while we are small in number, we are mighty. We are part of the fabric of the United States, of so many nations, and we will not be silenced nor made to hide our identities. Those days of Jewish passivity passed into the annals of history through the fires of pogroms, the killing fields and factories, and battlefields on our homeland of the 20th century. 

So, my friends, celebrate who you are this week. Visit your local Israeli businesses. Light Shabbat candles and display them proudly. Play your favorite HaDag Nachash, Debbie Friedman, Idan Raichel, or Dan Nichols song a little louder than you usually would. Make it clear to the world that you are a Jew, you are proud, and you belong whatever it is in the world you call home. 

Because as Proverbs reminds us when the wicked increase, people tend to hide. But Rabbi ben Azarya left out the second half of the verse which states, “​​but when they (the wicked) perish, the righteous increase.” Of course I wish no harm to anyone. Rather, we can understand the verse to mean when we overcome the voices and messages of the wicked, when we do not allow them to exist alone in a vacuum, when we challenge them - our presence will push back against their presence. The Torah does not teach us to be passive, to hide, exactly the opposite. That our pride, the beautifully just noise that the Jewish people will continue to make in the weeks and months to come is the exact correct response to the evil, the wickedness that has been unleashed on the world. 

Shabbat Shalom.

*Bereshit Rabbah 65:10

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